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Medical services such as pregnancy termination remain essential despite the COVID-19 pandemic. Although medical appointments are exempted from lockdown restrictions in the UK, anxiety about COVID-19 has deterred some people from seeking help. Access to abortion services has been even more limited in some parts of the world. Since abortion is a time-sensitive treatment, it is essential for women to be able to access care as soon as they need it. Delays due to COVID-19 could put women at risk or restrict their options for abortion.
Some women already had limited access to abortion in their home countries, but the pandemic has now prevented them from seeking care overseas too. Women in countries such as Malta, where abortion is illegal, have been ordering abortion pills online because they can’t travel to abortion clinics elsewhere. Around 300 to 400 women usually go overseas for an abortion every year from Malta, but travel restrictions have made these trips impossible for many.
Even in countries where abortion is legal, some women have found themselves struggling to access abortion services during the pandemic. Some have been afraid to visit the clinic while COVID-19 rates are high while others have faced new barriers such as strict lockdown regulations or limited availability of appointments. Getting to an appointment or affording medical care has been harder than usual for many women around the world. In the USA, a group of women’s health organisations have taken the government to court to challenge the fact that the abortion pill is the only medication that doctors aren’t able to prescribe via an online consultation.
In the UK, medical appointments have been available throughout the pandemic, including at abortion clinics. However, worries about catching COVID-19 may have made some women reluctant to attend an appointment or made it harder to reach the clinic. However, steps have been taken to ensure access to abortion during the pandemic.
Abortion regulations in the UK have been changed to enable doctors to prescribe the abortion pill after an online or phone consultation to ensure women in the UK can access abortion care promptly during the pandemic. Women can get information about their options and discuss their health and the pregnancy with an experienced doctor, just like in a clinic consultation. If they decide to go ahead with the termination and they are less than 10 weeks pregnant (or 12 weeks in Scotland) then it is possible to have the abortion pills delivered by post and take them at home, without risking COVID-19. Women will receive detailed instructions on how to use the abortion pills during the consultation and in the treatment package containing the medication. Taking the abortion pill at home following medical advice is very safe in early pregnancy and is allowed in some countries such as Scotland even in normal times. The success of this approach during the pandemic could even lead to longer term changes in how abortion care is provided in the UK.